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or experience of observation itself is conceptually structured by a learned language and hence depends on past testimony. For either reason, there seems to be no way that one could frame relevant observations of successful knowledge transfer by testimony without having acquired, also by testimony, a language.)

Thus it seems that there is little hope of offering a non-question-begging justification of testimony, or an account of testimony in internalist terms. Instead, whatever local checks might be carried out, we have to take the general reliability of testimony as a whole on trust. Successfully learning something by testimony is simply hearing in another’s utterance that something is the case and taking that at face value. Whilst the ignorance or insincerity of a witness undermines such transmission of knowledge, one does not, and in general cannot, first ensure their knowledge and sincerity in non-question-begging, non-testimony-based terms.

Of course, it is one thing to criticise an internalist account of testimony. It is quite another to articulate a satisfactory externalist account. But short characterisation will help set the rest of this paper in context.

Towards an externalist account of testimony

The most popular externalist approach to knowledge is reliabilism [**]. Whilst traditional internalists argue that knowledge is justified, true belief, reliabilist externalists argue that it is true belief arrived at by a reliable process. Crucially, that the belief has been so arrived at is not something a knowing subject needs to know or even believe. One does not need to know that one knows something in order to know it. In this respect it differs from the historical internalist accounts. But the new approach has something in common with those in that it aims to shed light on knowledge via its component elements. For that reason it faces the challenge of specifying just how reliable a process has to be for it to deliver knowledge. (If the probability is less than unity, it faces a charge of allowing it to be mere luck that a belief so arrived at is true and thus knowledge. But if the probability is unity, knowledge seems to be practically impossible.)

In the context of testimony, a more promising approach is that of John McDowell. Like traditional internalists and unlike externalist reliabilists, he does think that justifications or reasons have an important role in knowledge. But whereas internalists construe justification as something under the complete control of a subject, something they can ensure without any element of good luck, though luck seems to enter the picture to promote a justified belief to a truth, McDowell locates the element of luck differently. He rejects the view that:

reason must be credited with a province within which it has absolute control over the acceptability of positions achievable by its exercise, without laying itself open to risk from an unkind world. [McDowell 1998: 442]

On his account, even to enjoy a particular justificatory status - a ‘standing in the space of reasons’ - requires luck. But no further luck is required to transform that degree of justification into knowledge. This proposal is made more natural, and less revisionary, by three further points of emphasis:


A comparison with practical reason.


An anti-intellectual view of knowledge.


An anti-reductionist view of the kind of philosophical insight needed in epistemology.

Firstly, McDowell’s proposal about reason and knowledge can be compared with a view of practical reasoning which already seems more natural:

The concept of what one does, understood as applying to one’s interventions in the objective world, cannot mark out a sphere within which one has total control, immune to luck. It is only if we recoil from this into a fantasy of a sphere within which one’s control is total that it can seem to follow that what one genuinely achieves is less than one’s interventions in the objective world. [ibid: 406 fn 16]

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